Mardi Gras Food History: Beignets

If you’re ever in New Orleans, be sure to stop by the legendary Cafe Du Monde in the historic French Market to get your hands on some beignets (ben-YAYs) and cafe au lait. If you’re not planning to travel anytime soon, try making them at home this Fat Tuesday!

What is a beignet?

The beignet is a French -style, square donut, decked in powdered sugar. And it is delicious! Beignet means fried dough in French and is similar to fritter in English.

They are often associated with Mardi Gras and celebrations. Cafe Du Monde is famous in New Orleans for their delicious beignets and you can get them any time, day or night.

If you’re going to try a beignet, then you have to have some hot coffee! Cafe au lait is served with half and half and hot milk. The coffee is unique in that it includes ground chicory root.

This was originally done to stretch small supplies of coffee by early French settlers. However, in the process, it was found that chicory adds body and flavor to the beverage, as well. You will find that this coffee has a chocolate-like flavor to it. Mmmm.

Where did beignets come from?

As with many old recipes, it is hard to trace exactly where the beignet originated. However, it is believed to have been brought to France by the Spaniards in the Middle Ages, as the Spanish are often associated with deep- fried dough. Still, others trace ties back to ancient Rome.

The beignet later made its journey to America by French Colonists in Louisiana. It is believed the French Ursuline nuns made the donut popular. The Creole people often added fresh fruit to the French pastry.

Science of beignets

Beignets can be made from what’s known as choux (shoe) pastry or yeast-leavened dough. Traditional American donuts are usually made with yeast.

Choux pastry does not contain any leavening ingredients, but has a high proportion of liquid ingredients. This means the beignets puff up quickly due to hot steam produced during frying. This creates hollow pockets inside the dough after frying.

The yeast beignets, on the other hand, have a little help from the production of carbon dioxide by the yeast. However, this dough is also very wet and steam plays a role in these donuts, as well. Yeast creates more complex flavors due to the fermentation process. The majority of beignets today are often made using yeast.

Maillard browning reactions between sugars and amino acids in the dough give the pastry its signature golden color. Cooking happens quickly. I fried my yeasty beignets at 350 F and they were finished in about two minutes.

Get in the kitchen!

You can find an easy recipe for yeast beignets here. I added a little lemon zest in my dough to give them a pop of freshness. (It’s my new favorite thing to do, lately!)

Traditional beignets are served covered in powdered sugar, but you can also try them with some fresh fruit or cinnamon! I think a dark chocolate dip would also be fantastic.

If you’re uncomfortable using yeast, or don’t feel like waiting for it to rise, give choux pastry beignets a try! Choux pastry is known for being difficult to work with, but generally takes less time because you don’t need to wait for the yeast to rise.

These beignets were much easier to make than the yeast donuts I have made in the past, and probably tasted even better!

Grab some coffee and enjoy!


Cafe Du Monde

Joe Gambino’s Bakery. Powdered Sugar Pillows: The History of the Beignet.

What’s Cooking America? Beignet History and Recipe

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